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Digital Natives in Egypt

The term ‘Digital Native’ has only just become familiar to me – before joining the Berkman Center as an intern I had no true conception of what being a Digital Native really meant. And I believe that a lot of people my age in Egypt (where I live) or in the Middle East don’t realize that the term even exists. This is my experience of Digital Natives in Egypt – they don’t even know they are one!

As many of you will be aware, the rising food prices and consequential rise in cost of living in Egypt has caused a great deal of unrest, especially in the lower strata of society. Interestingly, though, it is the middle and upper classes which have been using the Internet (namely social networking sites) and other digital goods as a medium to organise protests and strikes comprising of over 80,000 people. Despite the class divide that is apparent in the Egyptian social structure, it seems that their mutual dislike of the governing system has united them, and thus instilled the use of Facebook and other social networking sites as a means to ‘spread the word.’

This then leads onto what exactly differentiates Digital Natives in Egypt from the ones in the rest of the world. In a country with 75.5 million people, only around 15% own a computer. However, a substantial percentage of the population are Internet users because of the huge commercial Internet business presence, available to the public through many Internet cafes. The class divide is more apparent than ever when concerning digital goods; in my own school (The British International School Egypt) I have witnessed a five-year-old talking on a mobile phone and a Grade 6 child boasting three iPods, but then also observed multitudes of child labourers across the country. Nevertheless, in comparison to the United States, there are evidently fewer Digital Natives.

From my own personal witnessing, most Digital Natives in Egypt use the social networking system (SNS) they find to be ‘in.’ For me, the process began with Hi5, which was quickly replaced with MySpace and now more recently with Facebook. Unlike other Middle Eastern countries Egypt has no local SNS and so Facebook has taken the younger generation in the country by storm (there are some others like Zorpia but only supporting a minority of people) – and with it has come the exponential growth in Digital Natives in the country; as one person gets hooked onto Facebook or MySpace so do at least another five, and so the chain increases. Even though Arabic is predominantly the local language in Egypt, Digital Natives will most likely be better if not totally fluent in English; established through their regular use of networks like Facebook rather than any local ones.

A mobile phone in Egypt, especially for Digital Natives, is crucial; you are nothing without one. In fact, when walking into a restaurant it is typical to lay out mobile phones onto table tops and it is not uncommon to see four or five phone lying on a table with only three people. Recently blogging has also become a major aspect of digital life in Egypt; bloggers have made their presence felt, some of them emerging as a force of political opposition. In 2006, media freedom organization ‘Reporters Without Borders’ added Egypt to its list of “Internet enemies” over the arrests of bloggers during pro-democracy demonstrations.

You may have concluded thus far that Digital Natives in Egypt are really not that different from those around the world. And at least for me the greatest difference in not in the Digital Natives themselves but the way freedom regarding Internet and privacy is implemented towards them. I personally was puzzled the first time I discovered that downloading copyrighted music from peer-to-peer software like Limewire was illegal in the United States- in Egypt it is quite the norm and not condemned by the government as heavily. In the same way, here the US government is able to allow freedom of speech on blogs and social networking sites. In Egypt, however, Facebook and other social networking activists are being targeted by government-based media campaigns defaming the website and the youth activists who use it. In fact, Egypt has the highest number of Facebook users of non-US countries, after Canada – but this has not gone unnoticed, and presently the Egyptian government is considering blocking the site altogether.

It is my opinion that not that much separates Digital Natives in Egypt from those in the United States or anywhere else in the world, except for maybe the types of sites they frequent, or their habits regarding their use of digital goods. After all, ultimately Digital Natives will eternally be linked by their common affinity towards and recognition of the digital world.

– Kanupriya Tewari